Since the war, the rapid growth in space technology has led to enormous advances in vertical photography and mapping using high-resolution equipment in satellites.
By 1984 no less than seven meteorological satellites encircled the Earth at an altitude of 22,000 miles (35,000 km). Their orbits were synchronized with that of the Earth, so that they appeared to hover motionless over their allotted sectors of the planet, beaming down meteorological information as part of a joint World Weather Watch system.
In June 1978 the U.S. launched Seasat, equipped with the experimental Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) system that photographed the surface of the oceans by means of microwaves instead of light.
Seasat’s electric system malfunctioned after 100 days, but in that time produced images of extremely high quality from an altitude of 500 miles (800 km).
During the nineteenth century, only 35 per cent of the Earth’s land surface has been properly mapped using photomapping techniques. The ATLAS project of the European Space Agency aims to complete a worldwide coverage of 1:50,000 scale maps produced by means of a series of overlapping pictures which can be processed through photogrammetric stereoscopic devices. The high-resolution pictures are taken with a Zeiss Metric Camera mounted in the Spacelab module.
With the advent of the re-usable space shuttle, these applications have become cheaper and easier to maintain, and are already taking over many of the tasks previously carried out by conventional high-altitude aircraft.